“A land of opportunity when it comes to design”: an Indian design guide

Propelled by a mix of high-tech research, indigenous knowledge and political and global awareness, the design industry in India is thriving.

“India is varied in every respect; socially, economically, linguistically, geographically and religiously,” Praveen Nahar, director for India’s National Institute of Design (NID), tells Design Week. “Designers have to find their own way of connecting with this diversity.”

As countries go, most don’t come close to the diversity found in India. It’s 1.3 billion residents speak an estimated 19,569 languages (of which 121 are “officially recognised”), practice at least six recognised religions, across 35 different states and union territories. The land itself varies from urban developments, to expansive wetlands, deserts and mountains.

As is to be expected, India’s design industry reflects this range of cultural, geographic and political influences. It boasts huge technology-driven practices alongside deeply rooted handcraft traditions, with the former being taught in specialist establishments like the NID in Ahmedabad or the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, and the latter being passed down through the generations.

The National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad campus

“Design as an instrument of socialism”

As a formal industry, design is a relatively new introduction to India and Nahar’s NID was the first design institution in the country. Established in 1961, the school was a practical response from a newly independent India faced with the mammoth task of nation-building.

The 1950s was a decade of rapid industrialisation in the country, and after mounting pressure for such an institution, the NID was established by the government of India, the Ford Foundation and the Sarabhai family, a prominent business family at the time.

“Many of our working practices stem directly from the Bauhaus,” says Nahar, whose words are supported by Singanapalli Balaram, the NID’s former chair of education and a member of the first generation of NID teachers.

“It was formed with the idea that a design school and research institute were equally necessary to offer assistance to industrial production and facilitate development plans in India’s new democracy, where the Bauhaus concept of design as an instrument of socialism was considered appropriate,” Balaram said of the NID’s creation.

As a country previously without a design institution, the NID’s first generation of teachers – graduates in art, engineering and architecture who had answered a newspaper ad – were sent to design establishments in Germany, Italy, France and Britain, to learn their new craft.

“As a result, our design education system has been blended between design for society and design for industry,” says Nahar. “It’s a diverse pedagogy and we’re mindful of connecting to the world around us.”

Tiipoi’s Longpi Black Pottery range

The political roots of craft

But while the NID represents India’s first steps toward a formal design industry, heritage craft and design has been practiced for centuries. Indeed, much of the country is still influenced by the inextricable link between craft and design, not least because of its political ties.

“Craft can be very political in India because it is so often tied to a person’s socio-economic status,” says Spandana Gopal, founder and creative director of London and Bangalore-based product design studio Tiipoi.

“While it permeates throughout the culture, there are very few schools that teach craft-based design practices because the reality is that, most of the time, when you’re a craftsperson in India it’s because you were born into it.”

According to Gopal, this creates a tension between wanting to preserve traditional crafting skills and individuals wanting to transcend beyond what are often low-paying, labour intensive practices.

“It’s an issue we have to consider a lot – how can we allow craft to thrive and grow, but at the same time allow craftspeople to exercise their own autonomy?”

Products like the tiffin box are rarely copyrighted, but have been refined and developed by many product designers

“Hidden gems”

Gopal’s Tiipoi seeks to balance this issue, by providing skilled craftspeople with the workspaces, materials and proper remuneration they need to practice their craft. The products made in Tiipoi’s studios are then sold internationally. It’s a business model that aims to elevate the status of Indian craft and recognise the design skills involved, Gopal says.

“A lot of Indians will have these really well designed, utilitarian products in their homes, but you’ll never see them being exported because they’re part of their everyday life – they’re hidden gems,” she says. “These products, and the work that goes into them are a story we are very interested in telling.”

According to Gopal, there are countless examples of this kind, and very few are copyrighted designs. Instead, products like the multilayer tiffin or traditional teapots have been used and refined over generations. It is a slow development process, she says, that centres around utility, rather than mass production.

“These products will be made in a semi-industrial environment, often by family-owned businesses,” says Gopal. “And for that reason, they will be extremely waste-conscious and frugal – most people tend to romanticise Indian crafts like textiles, but actually our craft-led product design is something really special.”

NH1’s Don’t Hide It campaign

“The culture of the country is evolving”

Alongside preserving and showcasing tradition, like so many other countries India’s design industry is also driven by problem-solving.

“A lot of it comes from where designers grew up,” says Nahar. “When you go to design school, it reaffirms your belief that you have the power to change things.”

Neha Tulsian, founder and creative director of design studio NH1 Design, echoes this: “Creatives have been very active in improving public services through design – sanitation, pollution, women’s security and a host of multiple social issues are being addressed.”

Indeed, Tulsian’s own studio has taken on a number of these problems themselves: from branding a hospital to specifically address the medical needs of women, to designing a taboo-shattering campaign to end shame are periods.

“The culture of the country is evolving,” Tulsian says. “And you have to design for the people.”

Posters designed by Priyanka Kumar (left) and Shirish Ghatge (right)

Design for citizen empowerment

On the other side of the same coin, this is also the reason why a growing number of young people are turning to design to voice their frustration with the world.

“Technology and social media have led to a new wave of citizen empowerment,” says Tulsian.

Citing the country’s ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), both of which seek to target certain immigrants and refugees, Tulsian says: “These political contexts are giving design a deeper purpose, and creatives are coming together to stand for political and social issues.”

In the wake of CAA and NRC unrest, design-led organisations like Creatives Against CAA have been established. Its Posters of Protest campaign seeks to forward the cause by providing open-source posters to be used in political demonstrations.

“Designers are becoming more politically aware and active and are using their craft for the people to leverage,” Tulsian adds.

India Design Forum’s Chakraview Installation at London Design Biennial, designed by Sumant Jayakrishnan, in collaboration with Avinash Kumar, Hanif Kureshi and Rutva Trivedi. Also banner image.

“A new language of design”

With so many forces acting on the Indian design industry, founder of the India Design Forum (IDF) Rajshree Pathy perhaps best sums it up: “Indian design can be best described as an eclectic melting pot of global design practices and aesthetics, combined with a design language that is rooted in our Indian sensibilities and heritage.

“Indian designers today are an amalgamation of global trends and indigenous aesthetics and this contradiction is what makes Indian design unique.”

Pathy explains that, like the wider global community, India has witnessed a transition of attitudes in the last few years and that sustainability is at the forefront of concerns for all branches of design. She adds to this that the country’s rich history has more than prepared designers for this challenge.

“In the coming years, I believe that this trend of resurgence and modernisation of our traditional practices by contemporary Indian designers, combined with advances in technology in design will lead to India being in the forefront of defining a new language of design in the coming decade,” she says.

“The key trend that makes Indian designers unique, is that they are not just looking towards the future, but are also looking at India’s rich design heritage.”

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  • Olga Norman February 18, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    Please can you give credit for the banner image and the bottom image? The people that worked on this project are so talented that its a pity you don’t give more of your readers the opportunity to engage with them.

    • Molly Long February 18, 2020 at 5:12 pm

      Hi Olga, the captions have now been amended. Thanks for pointing this out.

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